Condor program laden with lead

Carcass-feeding condors dying from bullets

  • An immature condor stretches its wings in Big Sur,California

    Joe Burnett

The California condor project has been the Endangered Species Act's flagship reintroduction program since it began in 1992, and last April's release of five condors at Big Sur was a made-for-media event. Spectators gathered on a ridge a mile above the release pen, with views of the Pacific Ocean in one direction and the rugged precipices of the Ventana Wilderness in the other. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and a gaggle of reporters watched on a video screen as, a quarter mile down the canyon, young birds took their first, unsure flights into the outside world.

"Hand in hand with many partners," Norton told reporters that day, "we're pulling this majestic bird back from the brink of extinction."

But all is not well in condor-land. Of 128 birds released in California and Arizona, 26 have been recaptured for behavioral problems. Forty-five have died, from causes ranging from predators to power lines. But the most insidious cause of death has been lead poisoning from rifle bullets in the carcasses condors feed on.

Since 2000, at least four birds have died from lead, and scientists say that 13 more would have died from lead poisoning if not for emergency intervention. They suspect that at least a few of another 17 birds either missing or dead may have suffered lead poisoning.

Scientists have recognized the problem since the mid-'80s. Now, as releases continue, critics say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is avoiding the issue that originally contributed to the condor's near extinction.

"The condor releases are going into their second decade and not a single thing has been done about lead," says Noel Snyder, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist and a vocal critic of the program. "It's an important issue and one that needs more than lip service."

Taking flak

Between 1984 and 1986, lead was responsible for the deaths of three condors, a major blow to a dwindling population already listed as endangered. The deaths convinced the Fish and Wildlife Service to recapture the remaining wild birds and place them in a breeding program.

In 1992, the agency started releasing birds into the wild once again. A cooperative effort involving zoos, the Fish and Wildlife Service and nonprofit wildlife groups has spent over $30 million to release and monitor condors in Ventura and Big Sur, Calif., and near the Vermilion Cliffs in northern Arizona. More releases are tentatively planned for Baja, Mexico, and on Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch in New Mexico.

Despite attempts to keep them on clean, lead-free food - generally, stillborn calves placed by biologists in isolated spots - the released condors are finding "wild" carcasses with increasing frequency. Some of these carcasses are animals shot but not found by hunters. Since condors generally enter carcasses through pre-existing holes, they are likely to gobble lead fragments left over from rifle bullets.

The issue came to a head with the loss of five birds, at least three due to lead, in the Grand Canyon area during the summer of 2000 (HCN, 8/14/00: Condors back in captivity). In March, the Condor Recovery Team, an umbrella management group made up of experts selected by the government, released a resolution calling for the Fish and Wildlife Service to act.

"It will be difficult to recover the species without doing something about lead in the environment," says Mike Wallace, the Recovery Team leader. "It's an issue for (all) wildlife, not just the condor, but we stuck the condor's neck out as a lightning rod."

But so far, Gale Norton, vocal in her support for the condor, has been silent on the matter. And the recovery team's resolution has been mired in the agency's regional office.

"We're still contemplating it," says the Fish and Wildlife Service's Bruce Palmer. "There's a lot of discussion going on within the higher levels."

Noel Snyder says not to expect action any time soon. He says the agency experienced a backlash from hunters and the National Rifle Association when it required waterfowl hunters to switch from lead to less accurate, more expensive steel shot in the late '80s.

"What we've learned is that they want to see someone else lead the charge," he says. "They don't want to get into hassles."

"We didn't do a good job on the waterfowl issues," admits Palmer. "We went about it wrong. We want to learn from what worked and didn't work."

Taking the lead

In the meantime, the nonprofit release programs aren't waiting on the Fish and Wildlife Service. They are trying to deal with lead themselves.

"In a lot of ways, we've taken the lead," says Kelly Sorenson. His group, the nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Society, has developed a condor treatment facility near its base in Big Sur in case of an emergency. It has also received a grant to fund a lead-education program and is currently developing brochures and fliers encouraging hunters to bury gut piles and use non-lead ammunition.

"Our goal is to promote awareness of lead toxicity in wildlife and not just in condors," says Sorenson. "We're focusing on making people, especially hunters, aware that it is a big problem."

Both the Ventana Wilderness Society and the Arizona-based Peregrine Fund are also improving their condor monitoring techniques, hoping to find lead-poisoned birds before it's too late. Each group is outfitting their birds with satellite transmitters, and the Ventana group has been sending up a weekly plane to track all the condors in California, including those released by the Fish and Wildlife Service. But these are stopgap measures that can only be carried out with intensive management.

"Having an alternative (to lead-based bullets) is critical to the future of condors," says Mike Wallace.

The Recovery Team is placing its highest hopes in the upcoming release of a new bullet, based on a compound of tin, tungsten and bismuth, invented by physicist Victor Oltrogge. Oltrogge says he is resolving some issues before licensing the compound to commercial manufacturers, but the bullets could be on the market by this summer. The military, citing the high cost of cleaning lead-contaminated firing ranges, switched over to non-lead ammo last summer. Condor advocates hope hunters will follow.

Oltrogge's new bullet, though, will cost two to five times as much as lead bullets. That's a price that many hunters won't be willing or able to pay, says Todd Rathner, an Arizona National Rifle Association board member and regional director for the Mule Deer Foundation.

"Hunters are generally working-class folks who have modest incomes," he says. "I think that it will likely be a problem to ask them to double what they spend or more. It's wrong to continue to ask hunters to bear the financial burden alone."

Some biologists have suggested that the federal government subsidize the bullets, or even mandate their use in areas where condors have been released. Snyder goes further, suggesting a regional or even national switch-over. Such a move would likely face heavy opposition. Rathner says the NRA is about to launch a hunter advocacy program to protect hunters from extra costs and regulations that could come with a mandatory shift to lead-free bullets.

The Recovery Team has only endorsed restrictions on lead in small regions of California. It hopes a combination of education and voluntary use of the alternative bullets will provide a long-term fix to the lead problem.

"This is a critical stage in the program," says Wallace. "Over the next ten years, we want the public to become aware (of the lead issue). And the bullet is crucial. If you do not have a way for hunters to continue the traditions they've grown up with, the likelihood of success is low."

Mason Adams is a former HCN intern who now reports for The Mountaineer in Waynesville, North Carolina.


  • Kelly Sorenson, Ventana Wilderness Society, 831/455-9514;
  • Bruce Palmer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 805/644-1766;
  • Todd Rathner, Mule Deer Foundation, 520/903-1666.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Mason Adams

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